- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

Who needs Fred Smoot? Or Clinton Portis, for that matter? Or, while we’re at it, LaVar Arrington? The Redskins beat the Vikings, a — gasp! — playoff team, 21-18 yesterday without any of those high-profile players. They even made do for a spell without their other starting cornerback, Shawn Springs, who was indisposed at the start of the second half. As for Mark Brunell, another big-ticket item, we all know where he spent the afternoon.

If there’s a moral to this season for the Redskins, to this Series of Unfortunate Events, it’s this: Nobody’s that important in the grand scheme of things. How important can Smoot be if the Redskins, without him, can hold Daunte Culpepper and Co. under 200 yards passing until the final two minutes? Important enough to pay him $5million a year? You have to wonder about that.

How indispensable can Portis be if the Redskins, bereft of his dashing presence, can get 118 yards and a touchdown out of Ladell Betts? And how irreplaceable can Arrington be if the Redskins can finish as the No.3 defense in the league — with LaVar missing all but four games?

I’m not saying these guys don’t have value, just that they might not be quite as essential to the Redskins’ cause as previously thought. Dan Snyder and his brain trust should keep that in mind as they head into yet another offseason of discontent. How many “core Redskins” — as Joe Gibbs likes to call them — are there, really, on this team? How many players have much of an impact on whether the club wins or loses?

The answer — from this vantage point, at least — is: Not many. And that’s good knowledge to have, especially if you’re an organization that has been prone to overspending, to not knowing the value of a cap dollar. If the Redskins are smart in the coming months, hardly a foregone conclusion, they’ll stop thinking so big — big names, big contracts, big headlines — and start thinking smaller. Because as we’ve seen the past 17 weeks, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, bigger might just mean a 6-10 record (in the sorriest conference in history) instead of a 5-11 record.

Antonio Pierce said something interesting after yesterday’s feel-good finish at FedEx Field. Coach Joe, he said, puts on no airs at all, even though his bust is in Canton. “He acts like he’s Joe Blow.”

It’s taken awhile, but Gibbs’ players seem to be adopting that same attitude, that lunch pail mentality his teams had in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Let’s face it, the Redskins — from Arrington on down — have had way too much swagger in recent years for a club that hasn’t had a winning record since 1999. And whenever adversity arose, well, you saw how the last two seasons ended — five losses in six games late in ‘02, six losses in seven games to conclude ‘03. A total eclipse of the heart, in other words.

But this year’s Redskins, Joe Gibbs’ Redskins, had more spine than that. You would have thought it was they, and not the Vikings, who had a playoff spot on the line yesterday, given the teams’ comparative combativeness. Gregg Williams’ defense swarmed the way it always swarms, despite the absence of Smoot, Arrington and assorted other casualties. And Joe Bugel’s neo-Hogs, the Dirtbags, pounded away at the Vikes’ front seven until they “started to crack,” in Betts’ words.

Seeing was believing. The Redskins survived one of the best passing attacks in the NFL with Garnell (Call of the) Wilds, a practice squadder not long ago, playing nickel back. They also managed to score three touchdowns — no small feat this year — with a jury-rigged offense revolving around Betts and James Thrash (five catches, a game-high 81 yards). If that doesn’t make everybody in a Washington jersey feel a little humble, a little less important, I don’t know what will.

Perhaps this season will be remembered, if it’s remembered at all, as the season the Redskins finally got away from the star system and began building a Real Team. Real Teams have Real Players, players who show up every week, not just guys who throw their reputations out on the field — and bail at the first sign of trouble.

Gibbs and his staff found a number of Real Players this year — Thrash, Pierce, etc. — and now they need to find some more. They also discovered they could live — thrive even — without such high-priced talents as Champ Bailey and Jeremiah Trotter. Here’s hoping they continue on that path … and stop trying to use money, buckets of it, to solve their many problems. Some things can’t be bought — and less, believe it or not, is sometimes more.

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